This has been quite the year for historical movies: the majority of best-picture nominees are set in the past, even if it’s the relatively recent past of Argo and the very recent past of Zero Dark Thirty. In addition, there has been lots of discussion about the historical accuracy of these films which, while occasionally interesting (particularly the Connecticut v. Lincoln controversy, initiated when Connecticut congressman Tom Coutenay criticizing the film for its portrayal of two fictional Connecticut congressmen voting against the 13th amendment when in fact all four congressmen from the state voted for the amendment outlawing slavery) is hardly news. All historians know that “historical” films are never accurate, but I, for one, still have my favorite films set in the past. I like these films for various reasons– the feelings they provoke, the certain aura or spirit that they might capture, the way they look, the performances, the soundtracks– but I rarely learn anything from them. There are some films that I like to show in class just because they provide a lesson in just how inaccurate “historical” films can be!
So, in honor of Oscar night, here are my top ten period films, in chronological order of setting. I’ve left out the major epic movies, most of which I do not like either as movies or history, in favor of “smaller” films that are personal favorites. And remember, I teach medieval and early modern history, so most of my films come from these eras: sorry, no World War II films, guys (I actually like war films, but I’m more of the Mrs. Miniver and Best Years of Our Lives type, with the exception of submarine movies, which for some reason I adore. If I could add an eleventh film, it would be Das Boot).
The Thirteenth Warrior (1998): this film was a financial and critical failure, but I like it, or parts of it. Based on Michael Chrichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, the plot is a curious combination of Beowulf, pre-Christian Scandinavian culture, and a real early medieval source: the Risala of Ibn Fadlan, the chronicle of a 10th century Arab diplomat who journeyed to eastern Europe and Russia and encountered the Vikings along the way.
Valhalla Rising (2009): an extremely atmospheric film in which a one-eyed Norse warrior (Odin?) and his child companion go on a mysterious journey, and end up in the New World. They come out of the fog into a dramatic encounter with Native Americans (apparently played by Tibetans) at the very end of the film. This is not an easy film, but its marriage of mysticism and blind faith are pretty compelling.
The Seventh Seal (1957): Ingmar Bergman’s classic film about a returning Swedish (again–I didn’t realize I was so obsessed with Scandinavia before writing this post!) Crusader’s encounter with the Black Death and Death Personified, with whom he plays chess intermittently throughout the films until Death wins. The scene in which the knight and his companions wait for death/Death at dinner in his castle is haunting, as is their “Dance of Death” at the very end of the film. This is one of the few films which I try to show in its entirety in class, rather than just clips, and the students usually get (into) it.
A Knight’s Tale (2001): and on a much lighter note………….you might be surprised to find this film on my list but I love this film’s spirit as well as its use of very deliberate anachronisms. I like to think of Chaucer’s world this way. You can’t recreate the fourteenth century on film anyway, so you might as well have fun!
Henry V (1989): this is my favorite Shakespeare film as well as my favorite Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare film. The St. Crispin’s Day speech is of course extremely inspiring, as is the score by Patrick Doyle, most especially the choral epilogue at the end of the Battle of Agincourt: “Non Nobis, Domine”. Most students have a rather romantic view of medieval warfare, which the long and bloody battle scene helps to dispel.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): it is difficult to over-emphasize the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film, which narrates the examination, trial and execution of Joan of Arc in 1431 through extreme close-ups of the participants, warts and all. The master negative of the film was destroyed in a lab fire only a year after its release, and so the complete film was lost for decades, until a copy was miraculously found in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in the early 1980s. The DVD release in the 1990s includes an oratorio by Richard Einhorn called “Voices of Light” which actually makes the silent film even more compelling, but the real star of the production is actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who appears to be in a near-ecstatic state for most of the film, as if possessed by Joan.
A Queen and Two Kings:
Elizabeth (1998): this film is a historical hot mess which plays with chronology and the facts with abandon—and the sets are terrible. Nevertheless I do like Cate Blanchett’s characterization of the young Elizabeth, and the movie is useful to me as I can teach against it. I really like the poster too: I have framed versions in both my university and home offices.
A Man for all Seasons (1966): now here is an example of much more subtle anachronism, with Thomas More not only deified for his faith, but also for his individualism. There were so many English “historical” movies made in the 1960s (The Lion in Winter, Becket, Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary Queen of Scots, Lawrence of Arabia, etc…) that I felt that I should include one, and More’s struggle between conscience and obligation to Henry VIII is universally appealing. Paul Scofield as More and Richard Shaw as Henry VIII are both great; in fact, Shaw is probably my favorite screen Henry VIII. If I show clips in class, however, I feel that I have to balance the film’s portrayal of More’s resolute passage to martyrdom with his zealous persecution of Protestants.
The Madness of King George (1994): a very entertaining presentation of King George III’s descent (and recovery) into a porphyria-induced insanity in the late eighteenth century, and the ensuing Regency Crisis. The actual events seem to be accurately, albeit dramatically, portrayed, but this is not really my period so I can’t critique accuracy; I’m just entertained. Nigel Hawthorne as King George is amazing in this film; he was robbed by Forrest Gump of the Oscar that year.
One War Film:
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): an extremely powerful view of another descent, of innocent, whipped-up German boys into the hell of World War One. This film was on TCM several weeks ago and I sat watching it, riveted, even while it was extremely difficult to do so. I think this movie benefits from its age; you can tell that it was made by the same generation that experienced the first World War. And of course all the battle scenes would be computer-generated if the film were made today, which would transition it into video-game territory and rob it of its humanistic power.
So there you have it: my top ten list of historical films–for now. This was tough; I think I would come up with a different list next week, or maybe even tomorrow. All comments and suggestions are more than welcome (even for war films): the list is always subject to substitutions.